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New Book on Mickey Cohen Shows He Wasn't Just a Notorious Gangster -- He Was a Folk Hero

New Book on Mickey Cohen Shows He Wasn't Just a Notorious Gangster -- He Was a Folk Hero

Here in the breezy capital of bland, blond

celebrities, it's hard not to feel a pang of regret after reading Tere

Tereba's engrossing new book, Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.'s Notorious Mobster

(ECW Press, Toronto), that Los Angeles lost one of its few genuinely

colorful personalities when the gangster died here in 1976.

Cohen's

charisma was off-kilter but undeniable: To Angelenos in the 1950s, he

was a shady but humorous character, a "high-stakes gambler" who maybe

hung out with too many lowlifes. Straight out of Central Casting in a

huge fedora, striped zoot suit and five o'clock shadow, Cohen was in

reality an explosively hot-tempered, trigger-happy thug whose motto,

"anything to make a buck," really meant anything dishonest and

occasionally lethal.

As chronicled by Tereba, a former Interview

magazine writer and bicoastal Warholite, Cohen undoubtedly had a hand

in the deaths of a lot of people, including rival mobsters and even some

"pals" during his 25-year reign as king of the L.A. rackets. Charming,

but not a nice guy.

Looking back, the problem was that Mickey

Cohen's persona was too damn lovable. The consensus seems to be that

"everybody" loved him: not only headline-happy reporters but crooked

LAPD cops and sheriffs (many of whom actually worked for him) and, most

importantly, the public. As veteran TV newsman Pete Noyes reminisced

decades later, "Down deep, Mickey Cohen fascinated the public."

Who

wouldn't love a homegrown, dese-dem-'n'-dose-spouting Jewish kid from

Boyle Heights who'd come up the hard way? Plus, as a strong-arm

extortionist, pimp and bookmaker, Cohen was wildly successful, and

everybody loves a winner. That he was an eccentric who would rather kiss

a dog than his wife, tawked outta da side of his mouth and fed pasta to

his bib-wearing pet bulldog at restaurants was just the icing on the

cake.

Tereba's book sets the stage by recounting gangster-crazy

Hollywood's earlier fascination with Cohen's associate, movie

star-handsome Bugsy Siegel, who came out west in 1935 to gain control of

illegal "vice" activities in L.A. The movie elite loved drinking and

gambling at mob-run casinos like the Clover Club on Sunset, where

titillating proximity to real-life crime sent glorious chills up the

spines of producers David O. Selznick and B.P. Schulberg. Following

Siegel's assassination in '47, it was Cohen (a Peter Lorre character to

Siegel's Humphrey Bogart) who effectively took over the vice game in

L.A.: prostitution, illegal gambling and, of course, "dope."

The

densely packed narrative digs into the ensuing turf wars with rival

mobsters that left the city on edge and Cohen, each time, amazingly

unscathed.

Tereba, who spent much of her youth on Sunset seeing

bands like The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, didn't set out to write a book on

Cohen per se. "I wanted to write a history of the L.A. underworld," she

says, "which had never been done before, and this book really tells,

for the first time, the complete story. But Mickey Cohen became the

logical focus." Utilizing declassified FBI files, Tereba uncovered tons

of info, including the fact that Cohen contracted gonorrhea at 18,

possibly accounting for his obsessive hand washing and daily,

two-hour-long showers.

Born Meyer Harris Cohen, "the Mick" was

dirt-poor, but even as a child he was driven to make money no matter

what it took, including a precocious and violent first offense at age 9:

Armed with a baseball bat, he attempted to rob the box office of a

downtown movie theater. (That Cohen, who was always rolling in dough,

never learned to count is one of many darkly comic revelations of this

book.)

Other juicy tidbits include a detailed account of the

deadly romance between Lana Turner and Cohen's pal Johnny Stompanato

(well-endowed and popular with women but always broke) and a

mind-boggling cash-for-votes deal between Cohen and the young Richard

Nixon.

Cohen's Teflon image in the eyes of an endlessly forgiving

public (and judicial system) reminds us that Americans in the '50s were

just as enamored of criminality as we are today, and that the wink-wink

attitude that finds organized crime to be charming did not begin with

the Godfather flicks.

Cohen eventually served time for

income tax evasion, but the people still loved him. Publicity-crazy from

birth, he knew how to play that game.

"See, I have been blown up

in the Hollywood way," he once said. "In ... Boston or New York, I would

have been ... lost in the shuffle, an ordinary high-rolling gambler.

It's a different situation out here."

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